By Dan Gordon
Growing up during the Great Migration, Helena Sue Alves never felt threatened having mostly white neighbors. She never asked any questions about helping her southern cousins tie Tobacco leaves.
It wasn't until Alves was denied the right to buy an ice cream cone on a hot summer day in
North Carolina that she realized she could be treated differently because of the color of her skin.
"Here [in New England] you'd go to the store and get an ice cream cone and there would be
no problem, but down there they wouldn't serve you," Alves said.
Alves was born in Brockton in 1932, to a family already established in a mostly white community.
Her grandfather worked for the city and was one of the original founders of the Messiah Baptist Church.
Alves remembers there were never any problems with her white neighbors.
"There weren't many minorities here," Alves said. "My sister and I were the only black people in junior high school. It wasn't hard because all the neighbors were white and associated and hung out with each other all the time."
Soon after Alves graduated from high school, she was fortunate enough to get a job with the New England Telephone Company, now more commonly known as Verizon.
Alves has the distinction of being the very first black employee in the history of the company, hired in 1952 after a recommendation by a family friend.
"My grandfather worked for the city and he knew the mayor, so he told the mayor, 'I've got a couple of granddaughters coming out of school and I want you to get them a job at the telephone company,"' Alves said.
The mayor pulled some strings, and after agreeing to take an entrance exam, Alves and her sister Betty Lou Carter began work. The oscillation between the North and the South was never clearer to Alves than when she spent summers in North Carolina.
"The only time we heard about it [the struggles of living in the South] was when we went down South," Alves said. "We'd work with our relatives and we'd help in the tobacco fields and things like that. They'd pick the tobacco and we'd help tie it."
Alves called the work a "family reunion," and said that "naturally down there it was segregated."
The ice cream cone incident still resonates with her, even up to this day.
"I said, wait a minute what's wrong? And my cousin, who was born and raised there said, "Sue they're not going to serve you one," Alves said, remembering the differences.